Books

Well, that was a book, I guess

I've been going through my books, trying to unload the ones I'll never read again and read some of the enormous to-read pile that I've acquired over the years from library book sales and used bookstores and whatnot. There are books in this pile I've had for a decade without reading them. I think it's safe to say I don't need to keep them anymore.

I decided to read one of them tonight, and I'm not sure if a book in recent memory has made me go "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK" quite so many times in the first few chapters (until I gave up).

The book is Ember From the Sun by Mark Canter, and it is ... well ... it's a book. That was published. By Bantam-Doubleday, even!

The general premise of the book sounded promising. A scientist manages to implant a surrogate mother with a Neanderthal embryo, so basically it's Jurassic Park with Neanderthals. But why, oh why are all thrillers involving Neanderthals so mind-bogglingly terrible? The last one I tried to read was this one, which ticked off every last item in your basic terrible-Crichton-ripoff plot outline. Such as, for example, the characters finding the camp of the research team that disappeared before them, discovering the journal that explains what happened to the other team, and deciding to read it in linear order to preserve the suspense of the ending, while something is attempting to pick them off one by one. It is difficult to appreciate their plight when I just want to scream, "Read the last page first, you morons!" at them every 3 pages or so.)

Anyway. Ember From the Sun. The cut isn't really for spoilers - although yes, there are extensive spoilers, but seriously, are any of you actually going to read this book? Mostly it's just cut to keep you from having to wade through all this if you don't care.

So, for starters, the author doesn't seem to have even a passing acquaintance with research, on anything. Though it doesn't help that the book is dealing with subjects I know something about (well, the setting and the prehistory stuff, at least), so I'm acutely aware of just how well-researched it isn't.

It opens on the "tundra" of interior Alaska. Actually, interior Alaska is taiga forest and muskeg swamp, and the only reason why I'm pointing this out is because it mentioned tundra pretty much continually, and while there are actually some areas around Denali that technically qualify as tundra due to their elevation, TUNDRA BY DEFINITION DOESN'T HAVE TREES. But this "tundra" had fir and pine trees. Which we also don't have. Not to mention all the references to animals we don't have, such as badgers. Yes, I know I'm being Pedantic Lass about it, and it's not like most books set in Alaska are any better at the finer details, but seriously, is it that hard to crack open a field guide?

Anyway, a little group of Alaska Native hunters are out hunting caribou - a family consisting of a Native guy who went off to Seattle and got a degree in archaeology, and his sister and dad. The author made up his own tribe, which I guess in this book is an improvement over maligning any actual tribe, since nothing to do with these people bears the slightest resemblance to actual Alaska Native people; it's a hilarious mishmash of New Agey and Noble Savage stereotypes. Aside from Archaeologist Guy, they are ~in tune with the land~, and don't use guns or motorized vehicles; they are hunting caribou with SPEAR THROWERS, and for transportation, they use dogs pulling wheeled carts. (Wut.) There's an ongoing implication that the nearest city is Seattle. It's not like Alaska has cities, or universities, or anything of the sort. The sister doesn't know what popsicles are. And so forth.

It's mentioned in passing that the big-city archaeologist brother made his career by finding a 25,000-year-old, perfectly preserved Cro-Magnon burial in Alaska. This definitely would be a game-changer, considering that the earliest evidence we have for human occupation in Alaska is around 13,000 years old, and Cro-Magnons were in Europe. Also, the description of the Cro-Magnon burial bears not the slightest resemblance to any I've ever heard of. But anyway.

Come to find out, the sister can talk to wolves (????) and the wolves cooperatively hunt with them, by chasing the caribou towards them, so they can attack with their spears. I CAN'T EVEN. This all falls apart when big-city brother, spooked by the wolves, shoots a wolf and all the wolves run off. (There's also a spectacularly pointless and weird chapter in which the alpha wolf he wounded, since it can no longer wolf properly, yields itself to one of the other wolves in the pack for a mercy killing. Because that is definitely a thing wolves do.)

So now his family is pissed at him and they have a fight and he takes off for the village in the dog cart. Along the way, he falls out of the cart and finds himself miles from shelter. He takes refuge in an ice cave he chips out of a glacier (.... A+ survival strategy, buddy) and here he discovers the body of a (kinda) frozen 25,000-year-old Neanderthal woman.

(Let us pause to appreciate the fact that Neanderthals, like Cro-Magnons, lived IN EUROPE, which is only like 8000 miles away from Alaska. Details!)

She's not really frozen, but actually full of natural antifreeze, like a hibernating frog, although she is legitimately dead. Like no archaeologist ever, he pretty much just picks her up and totes her off to his lab in Seattle without even so much as taking in situ photos or mentioning any of this to anybody. Because ... that's a thing that would happen. And there he completely dissects the body. NOOOOOOOOOOOO. Afterwards, he seems to have defleshed the bones, because he wants to display her skeleton. AUGH. Do you know how meticulously scientists try not to destroy the rare instances of preserved soft tissues in archaeological specimens? gggnnnnhhhhhggggggggggg.

And he's doing all of this in secret, because he doesn't want anyone to know about it until he can publish on it. He doesn't seem to have the slightest interest in exploring the area where he found her for more artifacts. Meanwhile, his sister poked around the area of the ice cave and discovered a beaten-gold amulet apparently belonging to the Neanderthal woman, which she is now wearing, with a map incised on it. NEANDERTHALS DIDN'T WORK METALS OH MY GODDDDDDDDDD. Which is probably me being Pedantic Lass again, except, it's like 20,000 years before anybody worked metals; this would be like Roman centurions having laser guns and this just being a perfectly normal thing.

Anyhoo, while he's examining the Neanderthal corpse, the World's Worst Archaeologist finds out from a blood test that she's pregnant, and then discovers the pregnancy is actually a blastocyst that's only divided into 8 cells and hasn't implanted yet, so it's still viable. (No pregnancy test in the world could detect it at this stage - SHE'S NOT ACTUALLY PREGNANT YET - but this is only a small drop in the ocean of stupid that is this book.) So he starts looking for a surrogate mother to implant it into. He does this by advertising in the paper, offering to pay a hefty sum to a no-questions-asked volunteer surrogate. (I would love to see the grant proposal for this.)

Believe it or not, this is where the plot really goes off the rails. There's a power outage at the university which causes his lab freezer to stop working, so he suddenly has to find a surrogate mother RIGHT NOW (there's only one freezer in the whole world, I guess?), and, continuing with the sort of stellar decision-making abilities he's shown so far, he ends up picking a 15-year-old teenager off the street for that purpose. Then he kinda just takes care of her throughout the pregnancy and delivers the baby himself. WHAT EVEN. (She almost dies during childbirth because, well, he's an archaeologist, not an obstetrician, and Neanderthal babies are big. We're well beyond "failure of scientific ethics" and into felony territory here, I think.) Then she bonds with her Neanderthal baby and, rather than giving it to him, runs off with it. While she raises her Neanderthal daughter in a small town, where no one is even remotely suspicious that anything hinky is going on, the archaeologist spends the next 18 years basically stalking them.

At this point I couldn't take it anymore, but I'd like to point out, in closing, that the Neanderthal girl is both mildly psychic and has the ability to heal people. This comes into play during a spectacularly dumb climax, which I skimmed, that involves following the gold map amulet to a cave full of the preserved bodies of her people that's about to be destroyed by evil miners, and something to do with her soulbonding with the archaeologist dude.

ETA: Heaven help us all, the author seems to have recovered the rights and brought it back into print via self-publishing. I would like to point out that the cover is actually a remarkably accurate visual rendition of the content of the book: incoherent, weird, New Agey, and full of elements that don't quite work together.

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And this got published?!!! How on earth did that happen?!!!

Even if I didn't know about the pre-history errors or Alaska-errors, it still sounds terrible! Were the publishers that desparate to get a 'Jurassic Park'-ish rip-off out that they didn't care about the quality?! The sad thing is, yes, they probably didn't care about the quality of the book, just the profits it might make :(

Though the thing with the badgers reminds me of the live action '101 Dalmations' movie, set in England, that had a skunk running around the countryside. Must have escaped from a zoo or private animal collection, I guess, seeing as there is no wild skunk population in the UK!!!!

EDIT: You know, if I ever found myself in a perilous situation and there's a journal to read, I hope I'd have the sense to flip to the end!!! My mother-in-law would, because that's how she reads books anyway - which is something I can't fathom, being a spoiler-phobe!!

Edited at 2015-05-26 01:35 pm (UTC)
The book came out around the time Jurassic Park was popular, so it's probably riding the popularity wave of that. I can't imagine this being published now, though maybe I'm just terribly optimistic here.
I got to a point where I thought, "okay, this has to be self published SGA fic with the serial numbers filed off."

And yeah, I'm gonna see if the library has the book because that sounds like SYFY movie level hilarible.
It can't be - it predates SGA by a decade! According to the author bio, the guy is a journalist in Tallahassee and this is his first book, which I guess explains a lot.
OMFG. That's ... something. Something I have absolutely no words for. *boggles*
It's not actually the worst book in this genre - mystery/suspense/sci-fi - that I've ever read. I'm pretty sure that honor still goes to the one with the lizard people under Antarctica who had a kind of mold that, when rubbed on diamonds, makes them squooshy so they can be molded into tools. But it is definitely near the top of the list.
who had a kind of mold that, when rubbed on diamonds, makes them squooshy so they can be molded into tools

WHAAAAAAAAAAAA....????????????

I think you've mentioned this before, but it still utterly breaks my brain.
That one also had a character who turned out to be conveniently telepathic at the point where they had to communicate with the lizard people, so there was no language barrier. And there was no earlier hint of telepathy being an actual thing in this universe. It's just like, hey guys, good thing I'm telepathic so we can talk to them! \o/!

That book was in a class by itself.
This is hilarious. I don't know if my favorite part is the bad research, the desperate search for some random girl to implant a Neanderthal embryo in, the random soulbonding, the new cover, or the dog carts.
First he tried cruising the red light district and talking to random prostitutes.

I really want to know how you write a grant proposal for hush money paid to a teenager you knocked up with a Neanderthal baby. Or else just try to explain why this grant from last year for studying, IDK, isotopes in Neanderthal teeth or whatever, seems to have vanished with no results.

.... Although I got the impression from some other stuff in the book that his specialty is actually lemurs -- he's studying lemur decomposition at the beginning -- so I don't even know. The science in this book is definitely SCIENCE!!! with a capital exclamation point.
Whoa. Well, that sounds, uh, interesting. I'm sure it must be possible to have an interesting story about Neanderthals, but I don't think I've ever heard of a book or movie that wasn't terrible.
There's The Inheritors by William Golding. I had to read it at school, and while I hate Golding and all his works (that I have read, that is, and I don't intend to read any other ones) I can't deny that the way he wrote it was interesting. (How real-world accurate any of his ideas are I can't say, but to be fair they probably knew a lot less about Neanderthals when he wrote it.)
Neanderthals are so fascinating! Why are all the books about them so terrible?

I mostly enjoyed Robert Sawyer's series about the alt-Earth where Neanderthals instead of contemporary humans were the dominant life form -- interesting worldbuilding, anyway, though it started a steep slide into WTF later on, not the least of it being a kind of notorious scene in which a rapist is castrated by having his junk bitten off by one of the other characters.
The Thursday Next series does some interesting stuff with Neanderthals, although it's more of a side-thread/color-in-the-background thing. (Well, from what I remember. A bunch more books have come out since I got distracted from the series, so it might have become more central to the plot.)
I think that's the worst archaeology I've ever heard of, and the worst depiction of scientific research. Though I am possibly more annoyed by the wolf sub-plot, being a big fan of wolves!
It was AMAZINGLY bad. Even if you know nothing about science or archaeology (and if you don't know anything about it, why would you write a whole book about it?) it seems like straight-up common sense should imply that some of this just wouldn't work.
And this book was published at one point? o.O This is one of the reasons why I tend to be a tad bitter toward publishing companies. You have brilliant books in which a lot of research was done that are rejected, only for the something that's the equivalent of bad fanfiction to get published.
Man, total King Bad Fic! I am amazed you lasted as long as you did - though I've got to say, your recounting of the plot was actually highly amusing - I kinda wish you'd do the whole book, with snarky little comments all over. But taking a look at his amazon.com bio it all fits:

Mark Canter was raised in Kentucky hill country in a metropolis of 400 tobacco and hog farmers, where he belonged to the only Jewish family in the universe. In his dharma-bum youth, he hitchhiked and jumped trains across the Western States and Canada and went through jobs from pizza chef to surgical orderly, massage therapist to rock-show stagehand. After getting a journalism degree, he wrote for a few Florida newspapers before becoming senior editor of Men's Health magazine. His short stories have been published nationally and his debut novel, Ember From the Sun, was translated into nine foreign languages. Mark holds a master's degree in the Humanities ("With Highest Distinction") and taught World Religions for seven years at Florida State University, where he specialized in "subverting the dominant paradigm."

Florida State Uni must be sooo proud.../o\
Bless him, he even made a YT book trailer.....



We should totally cowd source for the movie rights.
I kinda wish you'd do the whole book, with snarky little comments all over.

Seconded!
At this point I couldn't take it anymore, but I'd like to point out, in closing,

ROFL

Oh my god, thank you for that summary, it made my day. I laughed all the way. I cannot believe you braved this book and got so far into it because "a whole world of WTF" is basically it's true title. (And btw you're not being pedantic about any of that. I don't even live in Alaska and I know those things you pointed out...like..????)
As someone who compulsively researches pointless details in fanfic (ahh, the hours spent on google maps looking up Lisbon streetnames, or researching Japanese criminal law...!) I find this amount of research fail almost baffling. Like, I get some basic mistakes (mixing up taiga and tundra or misplacing badgers is the kind of thing you can just think you know and don't bother looking up) but why would you write about an archeologist if you know absolutely nothing about archeology and have no interest in learning?

...OTOH I absolutely love this kind of nitpicking, I don't know why but I love dissection of research fail! So even if I don't quite get how it can happen, I'm not entirely displeased that it does...!
I would be laughing so hard right now, if I wasn't so very, very confused.

I mean. Sometimes I feel bad about the unevenness of my own research or logic in certain areas. And then... and then that.

Yeah, I got nothing.